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Sri Lanka have had a cricket team since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they were given Test status. Throughout their early years they were one of the lowest ranked teams in the game, but in the 1990s this changed and during one particular World Cup, their status changed more or less over night.
Sri Lanka’s first official Test match was played against England in 1982, although they had played many exhibition games prior to this and used to go by the name Ceylon. During the first ever World Cup they made their One Day International debut, but this tournament and the ones that followed were not very successful for the future Test team.
After a loss to England in 1982, their first Test victory came against India just 3 years later, although they still struggled for the next ten years or so. This began to change in the mid-90s and one of the key games that marked this turnaround was their victory against New Zealand in 1995. This was a year before they co-hosted the 1996 World Cup, which they would go into as the outsider and emerge as a completely different team.
Sri Lanka were a late arrival to International Test cricket, but they still featured at the inaugural World Cup in 1975. They may have wished they hadn’t though, as they were knocked out in the first round, a disappointing finish that they repeated for the next four World Cups. Imagine the world’s surprise then, when Sri Lanka went on to win the next World Cup in 1996. At least, that’s what the record books show, but the truth is a little more complicated.
The tournament was held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the same year that the Central Bank Bombing, one of the worst terrorist attacks that occurred in the country, took place. Because of this, and the looming threats that it generated, both Australia and the West Indies refused to send their players to Sri Lanka, which means their games were forfeited. This also meant that Sri Lanka automatically qualified for the quarter-finals before they had even played a game. What’s more, in their semi-final match against India, crowd trouble forced the referee to abandon the game early, with Sri Lanka being awarded the win.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Sri Lanka though. They still played during the group stage, and they displayed some solid form, beating Zimbabwe, India and Kenya with relative ease, even setting a record for the most runs scored against Kenya. In the quarter-final they beat England and after an easy passage through to the final, they faced an Australian side that were ready to play, with the game staged in Pakistan. Sri Lanka were defiant against the multi-world champions and against all odds, they beat them, claiming their first World Cup success and becoming the first host to win the title.
Sri Lanka were back to their old ways in 1999 when they fell at the very first hurdle again, but they then appeared in one semi-final, one quarter-final and two finals, going close to winning their second title, but not quite getting over the final hurdles.
Considering the events of the mid-90s, it is no surprise that many fans and commentators point to this squad when listing the best players to ever play for Sri Lanka. Not all of their greats hail from this era though, and they have produced some incredibly talented players since they played their first match in the 1930s.
One of the earliest players you will find listed in most All-Time XIs, including the one compiled by ESPN in 2010, is Rumesh Ratnayake. He was the driving force behind a struggling Sri Lankan team, and one in which many amateurs and generally many poor players were drafted. Ramesh not only inspired these players to push themselves, but he helped to elevate the status of Sri Lankan cricket in a time when few cricket fans even knew they had a team. His actions defined an era for cricket in this country, and some of the victories that he inspired have since gone down in local legend.
Mouth Muralitharan played a little later than Rumesh Ratnayake, but he was just as important to the success and status of Sri Lankan cricket, if not more so. Often said to be the best bowler that Sri Lanka has ever produced, Muralitharan’s talent would have earned him similar status in any Test side. Somachandra de Silva was considered to be the Muralitharan of a different generation, a leg spinner that helped Sir Lanka to some unexpected success in their years as an official test side.
Aravinda de Silva also made his impact on the game after Sri Lanka achieved Test status. The batsman is often considered to be one of the greatest to come out of the country but more importantly he was there during a period in which his skills were needed to alter the fortunes of this cricketing nation.